Until recently – maybe 100 years ago or less – food was an intensely local and personal endeavor. With the exception of some dry goods, which could be transported and stored, most foods were locally sourced. Most fruits and vegetables were sold based on what was locally grown and in season – and depending on where you lived, some or most of them came out of your own backyard. Meats were butchered and sold fresh. And in the majority of cases, the farms where those foods came from were small and local.
Today, corporations dominate every element of the food production process, from the point at which food is produced (and even before) to the point at which it ends up on your table at home or in a restaurant:
- The average farm doubled in size between 1982 and 2012, and large farms (those earning more than a million dollars a year) increased their share of total US production from 36% in 1991 to 48% in 2015.
- Regardless of farm size, farmers are essentially captive to large corporations, include suppliers of seeds and pesticides like Monsanto and corporations that dominate the processing markets. For example, 56% of the chicken slaughter and packing industry is controlled by four companies; four control 64% of pork slaughter and processing; and four control 84% of been slaughter and packing.
- Many of our packaged foods come from a comparatively small number of companies, each of which hosts multiple brands for their product lines. Tyson, for example, had $40.1 billion in US food sales in 2016, PepsiCo did $37.9 billion in sales, and Nestle did $27.7 billion.
- The first supermarket, King Cullen, came on the scene in 1930; supermarkets now account for 95% of grocery sales in the US, with large corporations like WalMart dominating the field. (Wal-Mart conducted 17.3% of all food and beverage sales in the US in 2016.)
- While single-store and small chain restaurants are still common, large corporate chains make up a sizeable chunk of the market: According to Restaurant Business, “More than half of the restaurant industry’s $491 billion in sales come from the Top 500 chains” in 2015, with most of those being fast food restaurants.
Of course, corporate dominance in the food industry is not automatically a bad thing: Corporations can offer efficiencies and economies of scales that make food more affordable and available. But in reality, as in other industries, big business’ relentless pursuit of profits over principle have resulted in an unsafe and unhealthy system – one that consumers should learn about and avoid to the extent possible.